Monday, March 15, 2010

Meet the Exonerated: Florida Death Row, Part 5

Herman Lindsey, the 135th person to be exonerated from death row, and the fifth person in 2009, was acquitted and released on July 9, 2009. The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously (7-0) “the state failed to produce any evidence in this case placing Lindsey at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder,” and that the evidence presented was “equally consistent with a reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”

Lindsey was arrested for the murder of an employee at the Big Dollar Pawn Shop in Fort Lauderdale, in 2006, 12-years after the crime. The trial court erred by allowing the jury to hear "inflammatory" statements from the prosecutor that unfairly led to a death sentence as well.

"I conclude that this error was not harmless. The prosecution's comments were not only improper, but were also prejudicial and made with the apparent goal of inflaming the jury," Justice Peggy Quince wrote in an opinion.

William Jent and Ernest Miller, half brothers, were sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an unidentified woman whose badly burned body was found in a Pasco County, Florida, game preserve in July of 1979.

The sherrif's department coerced the two women the brothers were seen with the night of the murder, to provide testimony that they saw the brothers beat the victim until she collapsed, put her into the trunk of a car, drive to a game preserve, and set the body afire, in order to provide enough evidence to arrest the two "available and disposable" [“Symposium on the Underclass,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 136.3 (1992): 319–52.] young men.

The brothers came within 16 hours of execution in 1983 before winning a stay from a federal judge because the prosecution had withheld exculpatory information.

In 1986, the victim finally was identified and it was determined that her death occurred at a different time than the eyewitnesses had contended. The defendants had a solid alibi. Moreover, it turned out, the victim's former boyfriend had been convicted in Georgia of an eerily similar crime. A new trial was then ordered, but prosecutors refused to drop the charges. The state of Florida didn't want to admit a travesty of justice had occurred and the two men didn't want to risk another trial.

So, in 1988, the defendants pled guilty to second-degree murder in order to be released immediately from prison. Once free, however, they repudiated the pleas. The original witnesses subsequently made statements indicating that they had been coerced by sheriff's officers to fabricate the story presented at trial. In 1991, the Pasco County Sheriff's Department paid the men $65,000 to settle civil rights claims.

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